Unions have branded the latest pay policy for the Northern Ireland Civil Service as a “slap in the face” for officials, after guidance specified that departments would have to balance pay rises with savings elsewhere.
The NICS pay policy for this financial year, published by the Department of Finance yesterday, said departments would be have some flexibility to set their own pay rises but that they would have to fund the increases themselves.
The planning assumptions for the 2019-20 Budget were “generally predicated on a 1% revalorisation increase”, the guidance said. Added to further increases tied to pay progression, this is likely to mean a total pay increase of around 2% for many public servants, the finance department said.
Departments could offer more favourable pay deals “informed by a range of factors, including recruitment and retention”, the DoF guidance said. However, it said funding for further increases must come from within existing departmental budgets and “prioritised against the other pressures facing essential public services”. Higher awards may only be offered in return for increased productivity – through what it called “cash-releasing efficiency savings” – elsewhere.
Alison Millar, general secretary of NIPSA, the NICS' biggest union, whose members are engaged in industrial action over last year's pay settlement, said the announcement would "anger members and strengthen their resolve to fight for decent pay and fair increase".
"This is totally unacceptable and does not auger well for industrial relations across the public sector. This is another slap in the face for hard working civil and public servants who have continued to deliver vital public services in the absence of the NI Assembly," Millar said.
Civil servants have effectively been running the country in the absence of ministers since a power-sharing agreement collapsed in early 2017. Earlier this month demonstrators marked 1,000 days without a functioning executive in Northern Ireland with a rally at Stormont.
The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants acriss the UK, meanwhile said the guidance was “quite clear” that departments were being offered a choice between offering higher pay awards and cutting staff.
The FDA’s national officer for Northern Ireland, Allan Sampson, said: “This pay policy will once more provide an effective barrier to the meaningful pay increases civil servants deserve, and will reinforce the view that the NICS has, as an employer, abandoned its responsibility to fairly reward its employees in favour of a minimalist approach based solely on considerations of recruitment and retention.”
Negotiations will now begin between staff groups and departments about whether to increase this total award.
Bill Pauley, head of the NICS strategic policy division, acknowledged in a letter to finance directors that some departments faced “even greater pressures in relation to higher awards as a consequence of the specific contractual arrangements different staff groups have”, but stressed that funding for these awards “will have to be found from within existing departmental budgets”.
Pauley added that “there will be a need for pay discipline in 2019/20 to ensure the affordability of public services and the sustainability of public sector employment”.
Millar said NIPSA would "consider carefully" its next steps, but said it would use the upcoming general election to challenge candidates standing on their pay stance.
Sampson said the FDA would push for a plan to make up for the real-terms pay cuts civil servants had experienced over the last decade.
"FDA members in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have not received a meaningful pay increase in over a decade. They are now faced with the prospect of another pay award which fails to protect them against the effects of inflation,” he said.
In yesterday’s announcement, the finance department said it would announce next year’s pay policy earlier in the year to line up with the publication of the Northern Ireland Budget. The 2019 budget was published on 28 February.
The 2020-21 policy will also allow some employers to negotiate a multi-year pay settlement for their employees, DoF said.
The department said it would commission a study to examine issues affecting public sector pay, including the labour market, before the 2020-21 Budget.